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August 20, 2009 12:18 PM Pie in the Sky

What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.

By Mariah Blake

Shortly after their seminal meeting with Monaghan, Safranek and the others negotiated buyouts from the University of Detroit Mercy, packed up their belongings, and moved to Ann Arbor. For most, this move came with some sacrifices. Safranek gave up tenure and a seat on the city council, and sold the home he had just bought for his wife and seven children, a brick abode with a vegetable garden near Lake Sinclair. But they were too wrapped up in their new venture to have regrets.

The professors set up shop in a bank of cubicles at Domino’s Farms, which housed, among other things, the headquarters of Domino’s Pizza. From there, they began putting together the curriculum and recruiting professors. Dobranski eventually drew up a list of thirty-six luminaries of Catholic legal education (he called them his “dream team”) and began contacting them with a personal invitation to join the faculty. Before long, inquiries from prospective students were pouring in. In the fall of 2000, when Ave Maria School of Law opened the doors to its new campus—an 85,000-square-foot Frank Lloyd Wright–style building in northeast Ann Arbor—it had seventy-five students, almost double the initial projections. Their bona fides, namely LSAT scores, were on par with students at many top-tier law schools. Suddenly, Monaghan—a college dropout who had made his fortune delivering pizzas to dorm rooms—was in the inner circle of what was shaping up to be an elite academic club.

From the beginning, Monaghan insisted he wouldn’t meddle in the law school’s daily operations. As he put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “When I owned the Detroit Tigers, I didn’t climb into the dugout and tell Sparky how to set his lineup.” But behind the scenes, he was quietly amassing control. Monaghan appointed himself chairman of the board. According to deposition testimony that Monaghan and his deputies later gave, Dean Dobranski was also given an employment contract with Monaghan’s private foundation rather than with Ave Maria law school. This meant the dean answered directly to Monaghan and not the board of governors, which was supposed to be in charge. Dobranski was also obligated to send the former pizza mogul daily writeups of his activities, to which Monaghan would reply with detailed instructions. What’s more, money for both the law school and the colleges was doled out in dribs and drabs, which allowed Monaghan to keep a tight rein on their operations. (St. Mary’s administrators, for instance, recall pleading with Monaghan’s foundation for $75 to pay the referees at a baseball game.) None of this really mattered as long as he and the faculty were driving toward the same vision. It was only when Monaghan hit on his next grand scheme that things began to unravel.

By early 2002, Monaghan had three promising schools—Ave Maria College, St. Mary’s, and Ave Maria School of Law—but they were scattered across Michigan. In the hopes of bringing them together on a single campus, he submitted plans to build a new Ave Maria University at Domino’s Farms. The proposal might have sailed through unnoticed if it weren’t for one detail: a 250-foot crucifix. That’s taller than the old General Motors building and almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The idea touched off a firestorm in Ann Arbor Township, a wealthy rural community with roughly 5,000 residents near the city of Ann Arbor. Many locals still nursed resentments over Monaghan’s previous architectural ventures; years earlier he had tried to build the “Leaning Tower of Pizza,” a thirty-five-story copper-and-bronze-clad tower with a slight eastward slant. A few also grumbled that the onetime pizza baron—who had already opened two convents, a pair of Catholic radio stations, and a Catholic newspaper in the area—was trying to turn the township into a theocracy.

In the end, the local planning commission denied his petition to build the university, and Monaghan was forced to look further afield. He eventually settled on a scraggly stretch of tomato fields bordering southwest Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp. The site was twenty miles inland of Naples, which has a high concentration of Catholics and conservatives, and Monaghan believed they would be friendlier to his vision. And, as luck would have it, Barron Collier Companies, a powerful local landowner, offered to donate some 750 acres on which to build the university. In return, Monaghan agreed to work with Barron Collier to build a planned community around the school, with the profit split down the middle.

Mariah Blake is an editor of the Washington Monthly.

Comments

  • Art Zartesky on September 02, 2009 10:27 AM:

    There needs to be an investigation of whether Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation should still qualify as a tax exempt non-profit. Testimony shows Monaghan and his CFO admitting that the Foundation centrally coordinates the law school and the university "for the good of the Foundation". A 501(c)3 is supposed to be autonomous and not serve the interests of another non-profit tied to the same influential donor. This is a big fish for the IRS.

    http://avewatch.com/?p=144

    Also, it seems to be fundamentally wrong to manipulate multiple non-profits to pork-up a entire company town of for-profit businesses, as is the case with Monaghan's real estate and business holdings in Ave Maria Town, FL.

  • Reader 2 on September 02, 2009 1:53 PM:

    The Cliff Notes version of this saga:

    1. Several law professors were at odds with the administration at Detroit Mercy and therefore felt a lack of job security due to pending department cuts.

    2. They asked a fast-food magnate widely known to be a wealthy domineering micro-manager to fund a common dream, Ave Maria School of Law, to the tune of $50 million.

    3. Despite the magnate spending even more than the promised $50 million on the school, the dissident law professors now snobbishly decry that this benefactor is a wealthy domineering micro-managing fast-food magnate, and resent the fact that this benefactor did not stand on the sidelines and act as if he were a disinterested party.

    4. These dissident professors - once again - found themselves at odds with the school administration, and so they did all they could to raise a ruckus and thwart its goals.

    5. These dissident professors failed to thwart anything.

    6. These dissidents continue to whine to the media and anyone else who will lsiten.

    Comments:

    This year's entering class is the first to enter since the ABA approved the school's move to Florida, putting to bed the scare-mongering about the school's "uncertain future" that dissident faculty shamefully promoted at the expense of their virtue.

    The law school enrolled 205 new 1L students this year and had to turn away many who were offered conditional admission on a space-available basis. This while at the same time achieving its lowest-ever discount rate (the percentage of tuition assistance provided), and inproving the objective student quality.

    Two of the founding faculty - both outspoken dissidents - apparently did not obtain work elsewhere and have relocated to Florida to teach at the school, despite the dissident talking points that the school is now pathetic. One has to ask if these two faculty are of such low quality that they cannot obtain new positions, and if they simply "sold out" to the billionaire and moved to Florida for the money, despite what the dissidents have consistently painted as an evil geographical re-location forced on all by the evil acts of a reckless administration.

    The dissidents decided that they did not have enough control over the school, so they did all they could to thwart its progress while begging any media outlet available to hawk their "poor little me" propaganda. They have failed to halt the move to Florida and now they have thrown a bone to Miss Blake to re-tell - yet again - their stale story.

  • KansasVoter on September 02, 2009 5:47 PM:

    This is just more proof that religious people are idiots and that all religions need to be done away with.

  • Tell It Like It Is on September 02, 2009 6:24 PM:

    Reader 2 is one of Monaghan's paid "PR" firms to hack against other people.

    The real story:

    Ave Maria Law has one of the worst student bodies in America.

    Ave Maria Law has one of the worst faculties in America.

    Ave Maria Law is one of the worst law schools in America.

    Monaghan promised he would do whatever it took to make it a "top tier" school.

    The careers of hundreds of students are now tied to a law school of the lowest rank.

    Monaghan and the Board that allowed this are to blame.

    It is not about geography. It never was.

    In typical Ave Maria speak those who tried to ensure that the School kept its promises and representations to the students are termed "dissidents." In America, we call those people Patriots.

  • Kate on September 02, 2009 6:26 PM:

    Looks like we have at least one visitor from the Foundation here. :-D

  • K. Beringer on September 02, 2009 7:53 PM:

    It is laughable to see the fixation that "Reader 2" has on use of the term "dissident," as if it is a pejorative descriptor. Since when are law school professors not free-thinking when it comes to governance? Of course these professionals are going to get upset if their school's Chairman of the Board - who also acts as the primary donor - threatens to shutdown operations unless the institution moves to his for-profit start-up real estate development in the south Florida swamps.

    The naiveté here is with Monaghan, not the founding professors! He actually thought that a group of lawyer-academics could be herded like lemmings instead of cats?

    Let's see what happens with Safranek's law suit, Reader2.

  • Gentleman Johnnie on September 03, 2009 1:28 AM:

    Oh Good. Another great article has lead to another tiring debate about the law school. For anyone who likes to read these comments but has no idea of the factions surrounding this rather small school in the middle of nowhere, here's a list..

    1.-Pro School. Usually pro move, sometimes pro-monahan. This side will argue that the move made sense now, that Monahan pumped a ton of money into the school, that the lawschool isn't As bad as the former professors made it out to be. Pro-school debaters will frequently act more outraged and agrieved than they actually are.

    2. Anti-school. Always anti- move, mostly anti-monahan. The side will argue that monahan ran the school into the ground, that the professors had no choice but to fight a losing battle, that the school is done with, etc. They will respond to any points made by group one. The quality of their response will range from 1 page treatises to, "You're a moron/hack/chimpanzee."

    3. Anti- Catholic Colleges. These people maintain that a catholic town in the middle of nowhere is both very funny and a devastating blow to the Constitution. They are usually puzzled by the levels of fighting between groups 1 and two, who from the outside seem rather similar (both are predominately catholic, well educated, intelligent, interested in law, and have way to much time on their hands.)

    4. The Conspiracy theorists. This last group is the most interesting. They usually side with the anti-law school camp and hold that monahan is not only attempting to undo education, but squeeze millions out of a sweet florida real estate deal while somehow making himself pope at the same time. Why he would chose to do this is never explained. Maybe he'll buy more cars.

    Just thought I'd contribute this to any other washington monthly readers who are wondering about why anyone cares about our little town.

    P.S. The NDN story is out of date, Barron Collier published, in the NDN, a long article detailing exactly why they will not control the town forever. It basically comes down to: The reporter got his math wrong.

  • Tell the Truth on September 03, 2009 7:25 AM:

    The Ave Enterprise has a PR machine that will fill the comment boxes like "Gentleman Johnnie"

    What you need to know is that the "anti" Monaghan people were once "pro" Monaghan. Of course, it is so bizarre for a University or Law school to even have such monikers. That is how Gentleman Johnnie and his Ave paid people think.

    You can answer a few questions to determine if you too are anit Monaghan:

    1. Do you think faculty can speak freely about issue they deem of public concern? If yes, you are anti Monaghan.

    2. Do you think it normal for the DEAN of a LAW SCHOOL to write DAILY REPORTS to the Chairman of the Board? If no, you are anti Monaghan.

    3. Do you think it rational to move a thriving law school from Ann Arbor to a barely developed town near the Everglades in Florida, 30 miles from the nearest town? If no, you are anti Monaghan.

    To be anti Monaghan means to think for yourself based upon facts and reason.

    To be pro Monaghan means to follow the leader and his latest visions.

  • Listen to Ave on September 03, 2009 8:30 AM:

    If you want to know the Ave mentality best, go to its website and listen to the "voice of Ave Maria" a guy named Orsi.

    He is allegedly a priest.

    If you listen to the radio show he hosts, it will tell you everthing

  • Ave Veteran on September 03, 2009 9:59 AM:

    Conspiracy theorists found out that Fr. Maciel of the Legion of Christ was really a pedophile and had fathered illegitimate children.

    Conspiracy theorists created a story about how Mark Sanford had a mistress.

    Conspiracy theorists fabricated the Oral Roberts president's self-indulgent ways.

    Religion can be used by anyone for any purpose. There are a lot of good and a lot of bad. This article helps us to see the bad. There is a lot, lot more to uncover.

  • Avi Davi Doo on September 04, 2009 11:04 AM:

    A bunch of fourth rate law professors hook up with a rich guy who was unable to get through college, and people consider it newsworthy that the educational institution they created isn't kicking Harvard's butt? What else would you expect? The only thing operating in this project's favor was money, and it seems like there's less of that than previously expected.

  • Ave Veteran on September 04, 2009 4:13 PM:

    The professors they had at the start were very good. They could have been at second or top third tier schools. They had qualifications largely matching faculty at top tier schools. They hired people as good or better to follow on.

    You are right though, the dough was not enough.

    The craziness of the enterprise turned people off. Look at the leadership. Tragic story of megalomania. Ongoing in Florida although the real estate implosion will mercifully bring an end to the enterprise.

  • JohnMcC on September 04, 2009 5:52 PM:

    Oh thank goodness for this. I needed a deep full-throated laugh and the Right-Wing wingnuts came right thru....
    Next? Regent University, America's preeminent Christian University. Thank God we have a inexhaustible source on wackiness.

  • Janice Carter on September 06, 2009 11:36 AM:

    Everything fell apart at Ave Maria when both US News and the Law School 100 dropped Ave Maria to their lowest rungs.

  • Iowa Ryan on September 07, 2009 4:18 PM:

    The article is boring and irrelevant. The comments, however, are quite amusing.

  • SteinL on September 10, 2009 4:21 AM:

    Boring and irrelevant? It's enormously amusing, and tragic. Which is how one would describe anything the GOP and the political right tries to do.

    While reading, I had to look up the journalist, for the sheer excellence of the dry, understated reporting. When reality reaches Vonnegutian proportions, you don't need to embellish.

    This was an excellent read.

    And Mr. Monaghan? He'll find himself in the down elevator after his short meeting with St. Peter.

  • michmac on September 10, 2009 8:05 AM:

    Sounds like what Tom did for the Tigers he would do for the law school. That didn't work out too well either. And the pizza still isn't very good.

  • Lee Hartmann on September 10, 2009 8:25 AM:

    Don't forget Monaghan's involvement with the Thomas More Law Center, which supported such "great" causes as the teaching of intelligent design and interference in the Terri Schiavo case. To no avail.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_More_Law_Center

  • DJ on September 10, 2009 8:31 AM:

    KansasVoter apparently feels that a religious person such as Martin Luther King Jr. is an idiot. Sadly, KansasVoter has merely proved his own idiocy.

  • jprichva on September 10, 2009 1:21 PM:

    Very interesting article.
    One small factoid error: There is no "Lake Sinclair". The lake in question is "Lake St. Clair".

  • Robert on September 22, 2009 12:00 PM:

    Yea, I don't eat pizza. It isn't a healthy choice. It clogs your arteries like religion clogs your brain.

  • Ed on October 07, 2009 11:05 AM:

    Well it looks like the "great businessman" has a second rate intellect and next to nothing when it comes to perspective. Often great wealth is confused with talent and, alas this is yet another thread to add to that sad tapestry. Being a life-long Catholic I have always resented these control freak personalities that border on being apostates in their religious zeal. They act if they have some inside track to the Holy Father, but in reality they and their ilk are more like the Sanhedrin of the Bible. They only positive thing I see is that the Almighty appears to grant Mr. Monaghan his wish, to be broke when he's dead.

    Hosanna in the Highest
    Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord
    Hosanna in the Highest

  • wallamaarif on October 22, 2009 11:39 PM:

    I worked directly with Ave Maria University in the early 2000's, during the time of their planned move to Florida. Ave Maria had come to my organization for a stamp of approval, which meant that we saw all of their financials.

    I wouldn't disclose specifics here even if I could remember them, but we all agreed that this was a university that was more interested in being seen as an elite institution than in doing the legwork that makes an institution elite.

    You can imagine the office conversations we had about this startup religious college, just beginning to settle in and show some promise on the educational front, planning an abrupt move halfway across the country to a gleaming, heavily religious McMansion city that wouldn't even exist yet when they got there, to which they would lure students from both the Ivies and the SEC. (I specifically remember Monaghan believing that Ave Maria would one day rival UF, FSU and Miami.)

  • Liam W. on November 28, 2009 9:35 PM:

    I find it hilarious that AveWatch.com (the site that led me to this article) has posted another story attacking AMU via a local news station's coverage complaining that AMU doesn't allow dissenting speech.

    My son is a student at Ave Maria University. The local news reporter and AveWatch looked really silly. The two complaining students are goof-balls looking for attention both saying contradictory things about the school.

    AveWatch has "closed comments" on their story about AMU not allowing dissenting speech. The local Fox News station responsible for the report is also disallowing dissenting views from being posted and refused to interview students who could have helped them learn sooner the goof-balls were just playing them for attention.

    Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law are the best values in education today. Scholarly professors who have time for students combined with a rigorous curriculum are unheard of in most public and private schools today.

    I find it curious you don't seem concerned with all the law schools with even lower bar scores in Michigan. Any reason for this?

  • flcath on January 12, 2010 9:58 AM:

    I don't know that overt religious affiliation is really the way to go with law schools these days: Georgetown, Boston College, and Fordham are three fantastic Catholic law schools--all of which are Jesuit and highly independent of the Church. Meanwhile, look at schools like Regent, CUA, American, et al., and they haven't done as well.

    The one real exception to this rule--Notre Dame, which is pretty overtly religious and still a very, very good law school--gets away with it because it's very old (i.e., it certainly isn't building its reputation from the ground up), and even it has a great deal of independence from the Church (see: Barack Obama commencement controversy).

  • The Lovin Spoonful on April 18, 2010 7:51 PM:

    AM law school had a 100% bar pass rate in FLORIDA

  • Objectivity on May 28, 2010 9:14 AM:

    "Tell It Like It Is" seems to tell it like he or she feels like telling it. I would say that an individual who tells it like it is would not make such accusations without backing them up with facts! "worst student body in America." Very strong words, but where are your facts to back that up. What are you comparing it to? As one of the current students of the Law School I would love to engage "Tell It Like It Is" in a debate of any topic, their choice! "Worst Staff." Do you even know any of the current faculty? Some of our staff worked under Presidents as legal ambassadors for both Republicans and Democrats. "Tell it like it is" your credibility is lost. At the Law we are thought to listen with temperence to others. I have read what you have to say, but your words lack factual and logical backing. Next time you plan to make bold statements, please back them with facts or at least a small amount of research. On a side note, all ABA law schools are required to meet a certain ciricumlum. ALL Law Students learn the same thing, we ALL take the same state bars upon graduation. Our bar passage rate is extremely competative with some of the "highest tier" law schools in America. Just some FACTS to make sure that I tell it like it REALLY is!

  • L. Kalina on June 02, 2010 3:28 PM:

    I have read, and laughed, jealousy is really ugly....

  • bill heimiller on December 25, 2011 4:54 AM:

    The author seems to have taken the last part of her article from Wikipedia, leaving out key context she could've gotten if she bothered to call the dean. Both the school's class size and its selectivety have skyrocketed, as has fund raising. There is nothing to the 'financial test'. Ave Maria Law is clearly back on track.

    Here is the crux, and I know a lot more than this author does about this Law School[it's lake St. Clair, Mariah, not Sinclair]...
    Ave Maria Law is a force, an unfilled need, independent of Monaghan or Safranek. Why do you think Scalia, Bork, or the others got involved? Why do you think critics are going after it? It isn't because it's Catholic or religious, as one may think. It's because it is filling a specific need. A Mormon was even a recent valedictorian.

    key points:
    Ave Maria Law will continue to attract top students and professors.
    Ave Maria Law will continue to have a high percentage of its students selected for key clerkships.
    Prediction: Ave Maria Law graduates, starting in a few years, will have the greatest chance of being on the Supreme Court, other than Harvard or Yale grads.

  • Jackie on December 25, 2011 1:49 PM:

    Ave Maria is one of the least selective and unprestigious law schools in the county. The numbers don't lie: it has some of the worst LSAT scores in the country. I have no idea what the above commenter is on, but I'd like some of it too.